Oregon’s 2018 season ended with a 7-6 victory over Michigan State in the San Francisco Redbox Bowl. Starting quarterback Justin Herbert was one of the top quarterback prospects in NFL mock drafts, and he’d certainly left the Oregon football program better than he found it.
After all, the Ducks went 4-8 his freshman season. But for Herbert, a born-and-raised Eugene kid, one more season of collegiate eligibility meant unfinished business.
“Growing up being a Duck fan, this was the end for me, and it was always to play football for the University of Oregon.”
So, despite the possibility of the grass being greener on the other side in the pros, Herbert forwent the NFL and returned to Oregon for his senior season.
“I think we understood it together that another year in college football wasn’t going to lessen his ability to be successful in the following years,” Oregon offensive coordinator and soon-to-be UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo said.
Herbert’s decision to suit back up for the Ducks paid major dividends, for everyone involved. He threw 31 touchdown passes, becoming Oregon’s all-time leader at Autzen Stadium. He earned William V. Campbell Trophy honors for showcasing the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance in college football.
Selected as the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year, he’s on pace to graduate at the end of the fall quarter with a 4.01 GPA in general science. Oregon rolled through the regular season with an 11-2 record, capped off by a 22-point whomping of then-No. 5 Utah in the Pac-12 Championship.
All of it led to the Ducks’ Rose Bowl birth, their fourth since 2010.
“This is everything that I ever hoped for,” Herbert said. “This is the experience that we wanted when a lot of us decided to come back, and this is the potential that I knew our team had. It’s just been such a great year, and it’s exactly the reason why I came back.”
Herbert enters the 2020 Rose Bowl with 95 career touchdown passes, the most amongst active FBS players and the sixth-most in Pac-12 history. A three-time Academic All-American, he’s the second player at Oregon to ever throw for 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons and also has the most completions in Ducks history with 813.
“He’s an amazing young man, raised by an awesome family,” Arroyo said. “And has all the traits to be successful not only in football but he’s proven it now with everything he’s done, the accolades he’s done off the field. And I can’t say enough good things about him and his success in life will be no surprise to anyone who knows him.”
In addition to Herbert’s dominance, Oregon boasts an explosive running game behind one of college football’s top offensive lines. Sophomore CJ Verdell ranked second in the Pac-12 with 1,171 yards rushing in 2019, including an FBS-best 313-yard from scrimmage performance against Washington State. Alongside Herbert, Verdell joined Clemson’s one-two punch of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne as the only combos that feature a 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher.
Outland Trophy Winner Penei Sewell headlines an Oregon offensive line led by five seniors that earned Joe Moore Award finalist honors, given to the best offensive line unit in college football. The Ducks are 10-0 under head coach Mario Cristobal over the last two seasons when rushing for over 200 yards, and will need a strong performance from Verdell against a stout Wisconsin defense.
“Fundamentally, they do a great job up front, being where they’re supposed to be, good job on the back end, fundamentally sound, disciplined football team and [Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s] done an awesome job,” Arroyo said.
All-Americans Zach Baun and Chris Orr lead a Wisconsin defense that pitched four shutouts in 2019. The Badgers ranked inside the FBS top 10 in scoring, rushing and total defense.
“They have a really talented group of second-level guys who understand the run game,” Arroyo said. Herbert added, “They’re really physical. They move really well. They’re really athletic, and they’re really well coached.”
Should Herbert and the Ducks offense triumph over Wisconsin’s robust defense, Oregon will capture a third consecutive Rose Bowl.
“This is the Rose Bowl,” Herbert said. “This is everything we’ve ever been working for. We’ve been through some tough times and we’ve faced a lot of adversity, but we came through on the other side, and for us to stick together like that, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.